Private Treaty by Kathleen Eagle released on May 25, 1988 is available now for purchase.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
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North Dakota, 1896
CARBON-COLORED clouds stacked up high in the sky. Carolina Hammond opened the cabin door and stepped outside to watch the brewing of her first prairie storm. Above the jagged horizon, slashed by buttes and rolling hills, the sky took on an eerie, yellow-gray glow. Carolina folded her arms and walked tentatively toward the bank of the creek that drained the hills, keeping her eyes on the sky. The wind picked up suddenly, lifting her skirt and twisting it around her like a corkscrew. Wisps of hair escaped the tight knot at the back of her head and blew across her face. She brushed them aside, intent on watching
As she approached the creek, Carolina noticed the way the small stand of cottonwoods swayed in unison until the wind changed tempo and their dance became wilder, nearly bough-breaking. When the rain came, it offered no warning drops. It gushed from the sky in a sudden torrent. Carolina turned toward the cabin, but the wind's shocking punch left her staggering like a wounded animal.
She heard pounding hoof beats and felt the rush of the horse's body at her back at nearly the same instant. The horseman's identity became part of the blur of motion. Carolina lifted her hands instinctively to protect her face. An arm hooked her around the middle and jerked her off her feet, knocking the air from her lungs. Suspended at the waist, she bounced like a sack of meal over the horseman's thigh. Through tearing eyes she watched the animal's churning forelegs as she fought desperately to catch her breath.
"Hang on to me or I might drop you!"
Carolina tried to turn toward the voice, but the man's grip was too tight. She reached back and grabbed his shoulder; it was an awkward position, but it was all she could manage. Now he had both arms around her, and she felt as though she were slipping. The horse careened down a steep slope into a ravine, and Carolina closed her eyes. Lord help me. This man isn't holding the reins.
The rider snapped up the reins as the horse skidded to the foot of the embankment. Carolina was unceremoniously dropped to the ground. She made an effort to pick herself up as the horse skittered to one side, but she was snatched roughly to her feet and dragged into the hollow of a rocky outcropping just ahead of what sounded like a locomotive roaring through the ravine. She sank to her knees and curled herself into a tight ball. The man's body wedged her against the rock, and the howling wind blocked everything else out of her mind.
The prairie shuddered from the wind's assault. Carolina sucked her whole being into the deepest part of her brain, tucked her head against her thighs and fancied herself hidden from nature's madness. Nothing existed but the thunderous wind and the weight of the horseman.
"If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take ... if I should die ... if I should die ... I pray Thee, Lord ..." The words bobbed up and down in her mind like flotsam on the flow of her fear.
"IT'S ALL RIGHT now. The worst is over."
The voice echoed at the far end of a long tunnel, barely rising above the wild thrumming in Carolina's ears. She was all ears, surrounded by all sound, all fury, receding now, leaving her with heartbeat, yes, and breath, eyes hiding against her knees, arms holding herself tight lest her quivering body fall to pieces.
"It's all right," the man repeated. "It's gone."
Carolina raised her head, opened her eyes and looked straight up at the swirling iron-colored clouds. Not gone completely. She looked for the source of the voice.
"I'll take you back."
The man was all darkness — hair, face, eyes. His eyes were intent on her, concerned for her, assuming charge of her safety. He was a strong man. He had picked her up and brought here. He would take her back there. She was out of place.
"If your cabin is still standing, you will need to start a fire in your stove. You're hot with fear now, but soon you'll tremble with cold. Come." He leaned forward and cupped a hand beneath her elbow. She was supposed to move.
"The wind still roars in your ears." One side of his wide mouth lifted in a slight smile. "I hear it, too." What there was of the smile slid away. "Are you hurt?"
Carolina blinked. She'd been staring, carefully putting pieces together — the face, the words, the rock wall, the pressing clouds. "Hurt? No, I don't think so." She straightened her back slowly, relaxing her limbs a bit at a time, which only made her body tremble more. She tried to stand, but legs wouldn't cooperate, and she wasn't sure they were even connected to her any longer. She fell back to the ground and landed squarely on her bottom.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm all topsy-turvy." Even her voice wasn't all there. Her shaking was an embarrassment. The only way to regain her dignity was to speak sensibly. "I've never seen a thunderstorm like that before."
"Thunderstorm?" He scowled. "Didn't you see the funnel cloud? I thought you were a crazy woman when I saw you standing out in the open like that."
Carolina pushed a sodden clump of hair back from her face and stared, wide-eyed. A funnel cloud! She'd heard of these sudden prairie storms barreling across the flat land, and she cursed her cowardice for preventing her from taking a peek.
The man was familiar to her, but she had not been introduced to him in the short time since she'd arrived in central North Dakota. She'd met few people, actually, and none of them were Indians. She thought that strange, since this land was part of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
He suffered her scrutiny — ignored it, in fact — as she watched him remove a leather pouch from deep inside his wet buckskin shirt. The pouch was suspended from a thong, and from it emerged tobacco and paper. He rolled a cigarette as he quietly assured her that he didn't mind waiting a few minutes before taking her back to the cabin. Carolina's attention was drawn to his brown hand, which struck a match on its own thumbnail. Her eyes followed the match to his face, and the pieces came together now, the full picture. His face stunned her.
She wasn't sure whether it was the rich brown hue of his skin or the strength of his features that struck her first. His face, with its high cheekbones and a strong, angular jaw, could have been chiseled from the very rock they'd used as shelter. Wet black hair hung in braids over his shoulders, and a narrow strip of buckskin was tied around his forehead. He drew on the cigarette and glanced up at her with dark, inscrutable eyes as he turned his face slightly to avoid blowing smoke at her. His hooded eyes held hers in frank mutual appraisal.
"What have you decided?" he asked finally.
"About what?" The spell had been broken, and Carolina resumed her shivering.
"About being carried off by an Indian." There was no smile, and his tone was emotionless.
"I'm grateful to you, of course, Mr. —" He stood up, taking another drag on his cigarette. Carolina uncurled herself slowly, following his lead as she tried awkwardly to straighten her wet clothes. Her eyes sought his as another trail of smoke was expelled. She felt as though she were being tested.
"It's Black Hawk," he said.
"I've seen you. You work for Charles MacAllistair, don't you? With the horses? Is it ... Jacob?" She could almost feel the cogs and wheels in her brain beginning to turn again.
"Yes. Jacob is my given name, as they say."
"I guess I work for Charles MacAllistair, too. He's the president of the school board." She tried to smile as she extended her hand. "I'm Carolina Hammond, the new teacher. At least, I shall be a teacher when the school is built. May I call you Jacob?"
"Why not Mr. Black Hawk? It has a nice ring to it, wouldn't you say, Miss Hammond?"
"Yes, it does." It was clearly a rebuff, but when she added, "Mr. Black Hawk," he took her hand. He applied no pressure as he enveloped it in the warmth of his. When she reluctantly withdrew her hand, her teeth began to chatter, and she folded her arms tightly under her bosom. "I thank you for what you did. I must have looked like an idiot, just standing there, but I really didn't see it coming. I mean, I knew it was going to storm, but the sky ... so big and beautiful." She drew a deep breath. "And terrible. And fast, so —"
"I'll get my horse. Can you ride astride?"
"Better than I ride hanging over the side."
That brought a smile back to his face. He took a last puff on his cigarette before grinding it out beneath his boot heel.
The stout, stocking-footed sorrel was grazing close by, the reins trailing. The horse picked up his head but stood calmly as Jacob gathered the reins. With fluid grace, he levered himself up and swung his left leg over the horse's back. He trotted the sorrel to Carolina's side, then reached down to her. "Pull yourself up along my arm. Use my foot as a stirrup."
She hoisted herself up as he instructed, but she found herself clutching him again. She wasn't sure she could manage to swing her leg over the horse's rump from this angle. The helpless look on her face and the timid glance she offered made him chuckle. "Try to swing your leg up behind me. I'll pull you up."
Again Carolina followed instructions, and Jacob caught her leg behind him with his opposite arm. She tugged frantically at her skirt while he pulled her up behind him. He nudged the horse with his heels, and Carolina slipped to the right as their mount stepped out. Jacob reached back to steady her.
"Hold on to me, Miss Hammond, or you may find yourself on the ground again."
She wound her arms around his waist, seeking security. "You don't use a saddle?" she asked for want of a better comment.
"Not today. Good thing. Wouldn't want to try picking you up at a dead run from a saddle." He muttered something under his breath. "My blanket must have blown away. Lost my hat, too."
There was no more talk until they reached the top of a hill overlooking the river and the cabin, which stood seemingly untouched. Carolina took heart, at least momentarily. The only reason she'd been given a home of her own was that it was already there. Had it been destroyed, she would have had to board with the MacAllistairs. She scanned the scene below and noticed the little stand of cottonwoods. Half a dozen trees had been uprooted. They leaned at various angles like so many onion plants, roots ripped from the clay bank. Exactly where she'd been standing when he'd swept her off the ground.
"You should have plenty of firewood next winter, Miss Hammond," Jacob said as he leaned forward for a quicker pace down the hill.
He reined in near the cabin door and held Carolina's arm while she slid down the animal's flank. Her feet found solid perch, but her knees buckled. Jacob dropped to her side.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Black Hawk." Her voice quivered. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't seem to collect myself."
He bent to help her to her feet, and she found herself leaning against him. Tears burned her eyes and clogged her throat. She hid her face in her hands. She never cried, never, and she had no reason to now. She felt as though she were watching someone else's shameful display. She covered her mouth with her hand and gasped for her own breath between some child's pathetic groans. Surely it was the child who leaned heavily against the man who'd risked far more than his hat to rescue her.
JACOB FOLLOWED HIS instincts. A man was born to protect the helpless ones. No matter who she was, the woman was helpless. He had to put his arm around her to get her through the cabin door. Everything about her made him uncomfortable — tumbledown hair, slender limbs, childlike voice. She was a lightweight for sure. He closed the door behind him, gave his eyes time to adjust to the dim light, located a rocking chair near the big cast-iron cook stove and gently deposited the woman. If he hadn't been with her the whole time, he might have guessed from the way she was rubbing her face that she'd been hurled against a rock wall instead of sheltered by it.
"Try to get hold of yourself, Miss Hammond. If anyone comes along and hears you, he's liable to think I've hurt you. He'll shoot first and ask you about the details later."
She made a funny sound — half gasp, half giggle — and shook her head.
His best move would have been out the door. He could stop at the ranch house and let somebody know the state she was in. Yes, that would be a good way to go. Maybe swaddle her in a blanket like a squalling newborn so she'd feel secure. Instead, he put his hand on her quivering shoulder and gave her a little squeeze. Sympathy had overtaken what wisdom he'd gained, mostly the hard way.
"You're cold. Spring rain seeps into the bones. I'll get the stove going. Is there wood?"
She looked up, all big round eyes, and nodded.
Jacob found the wood box and built a fire in the stove. Then he struck another match and lit the lamp on the small table near the stove. Out of respect, he would ignore her struggle now. Such tears were an embarrassment, even to a woman.
He stepped away from the light and the woman, and surveyed the one-room cabin. In addition to the stove and the rocker, there was a little table with its four straight-backed chairs, a sideboard with upper shelves, a spool bed in one corner with a large trunk at its foot, more shelves, books, small boxes, bits of glass, and painted pottery. Two braided rugs softened the plank floor, and blue-and-white curtains dressed the small windows on either side of the door. The cabin had a comfortable feeling about it, Jacob decided, and he relaxed his guard.
He turned to the woman who'd become, for the moment, his charge. "You must take off those wet clothes, Miss Hammond. The house will be warm in a few minutes. I'll be going now."
She took a slow deep breath and wiped her eyes with her wet skirt. "I hate this," she mumbled. "It makes me feel like a child. I saw the trees go wild, and I saw myself standing in the midst of something beyond my ken, and I didn't move. You must think me a fool, Mr. Black Hawk."
"I think you're cold." He paused, watching her attempt to dry her face. "It's the cold of death, which has just passed close by." She lifted her head, and he saw a circle of white around the blue in her eyes. "It's also the cold of being wet to the skin. You need to change your clothes." He started toward the door.
"Mr. Black Hawk, I would be grateful if you would stay a little while."
He paused. Reluctantly, he turned.
"I don't want to be alone. I feel as though I left half my wits out there by those rocks." The woman closed her eyes, rested her head back against the chair and suffered another tear to slip quietly down her cheek.
Jacob wondered at the fact that her tears moved him. His contact with most other human beings was impersonal. Living in two worlds, he was a man in his mother's house and an Indian elsewhere — at Fort Yates, where the Indian agency was; at the ranch where he was employed; in the white communities that were springing up everywhere. But this woman was willing to call him Mr. Black Hawk, and she had asked for a favor, rather than ordered a service.
"Do you have any coffee, Miss Hammond? That might help both of us."
Carolina rose from her chair and made her way to the cupboard. "No, but I do have tea," she offered. "If you wouldn't mind taking a few moments to get some water from the well, I would change my clothes and brew a pot. It is getting a bit warmer in here, don't you think?" She fluttered about the sideboard, assembling the tin of tea, the kettle, and the cups and saucers, which clattered in her hands.
Jacob took the bucket she handed him and left the cabin. His horse remained ground-tied by the doorway. He picked up the reins and led the sorrel away from the nearby vegetable garden and its succulent new shoots. A low, uneven wire fence, held up by a variety of sticks leaning this way and that, surrounded the little patch. She must have done that herself, he thought.
He thought, too, of his mother's little patches of planted ground. She listened to the missionaries and tried to follow their suggestions, hoping to supplement the family's rations. Some disaster usually befell her efforts — raccoons or horses or drought — but she always tried, and sometimes she was rewarded with a little produce. We are not farmers, he reminded himself as he picketed his horse on a grassy knoll several yards from the house. Then he took the bucket to the well.
Excerpted from "Private Treaty"
Copyright © 1998 Kathleen Eagle.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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